PTSD (Post-print Traumatic Stress Disorder): Newsroom Transition Note #2

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Oh, snap: Change is hard, and we are not superheroes. Many in legacy newsrooms underestimate the emotional impact of the changes imposed on the rank-and-file.

This is the second-part of a series of notes from my time at TODAY, a small newsroom in Singapore where I had spent 34 months trying to figure out what’s needed for a print-to-digital transition. First part here.

Print is dead, so they say. However, the print legacy casts a very long shadow over traditional newsrooms and exerts a powerful hold on veteran editors and journalists alike — even after a newspaper or magazine has been killed off.

The habits formed and reinforced from years of doing things a certain way and at a certain time are incredibly hard to break.

Again this seems obvious. But it wasn’t the case for me when I started working with TODAY in early 2016. It was only much later that I fully comprehended the depth of the attachment many had to the “print way” of doing things.

Long after the TODAY newsroom lost its print product in September 2017, for instance, meetings were still held and coverage decisions made as if we still had a newspaper to deliver the next day.

It’s the newsroom equivalent of the phantom limb syndrome.

I’m no digital native. Prior to joining TODAY, I had spent 15 years working in The Straits Times, Singapore’s main broadsheet.

Yet I didn’t fully anticipate the grip that print-style operations had on people when I tried to shift TODAY’s operations towards a digital-centric one.

I call this the Post-print Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I’m not doing this to make fun of people who love print but to make the argument that many newsroom veterans, like those who suffer from actual PTSD, need help — maybe even counselling — to navigate the relentless changes imposed on them.

There is a widely-held assumption that senior newsroom leaders have to embrace the digital transformation, and will know what to do once they get over the (impending) death of print. Some do. But many won’t and in fact don’t want to have to deal with the changes.

Left unaddressed, PTSD slows the newsroom’s transition process considerably as these senior managers lead a substantial number of younger staff members, who in turn struggle with mixed signals and conflicting priorities from the newsroom’s leadership.

Dealing with PTSD is a personal process, but getting the proper training goes a long way. There’s a mistaken notion that digital training is primarily for the younger newsroom staff — so that they can publish across a multitude of platforms, send alert notifications, track analytics, produce videos etc.

Meanwhile, senior editors just need to adjust their mindset, continue to provide the “big picture” leadership and focus on “storytelling”. Nothing is further from the truth.

Without a good understanding of the demands of a digital operation, the role of analytics, and the recent history of changes in online journalism, senior newsroom managers will never be fully effective in leading their teams.

If anything else, they are likely to repeat the same mistakes other newsrooms have committed, or waste time going down the rabbit holes that others have already abandoned.

“Change has to start at the top”, so goes the corporate cliche. But it rings true for newsrooms in transition, where many still work under the long shadow of their legacy operations.

LESSONS IN DIGITAL TRANSITION: Notes From A Small Newsroom

Note#1: Coalition of the willing

Note#3: Lies, damned lies, and (readership) statistics

Note#4: What to think when thinking about digital transformation in a newsroom

Note #5: Change fatigue

Note #6: Final thoughts

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